All Saints: articles

ready to start filming

Prognosis positive

Patients in dressing gowns and slippers shuffle past, orderlies rush by, doctors and nurses pace around, and like any hospital, there are trolleys in the corridor, X-rays to be analysed and boxes of surgical gloves scattered around. A jar of jelly beans on the front desk is a symbol that says a lot about the caring nature of the staff.

It could all be real but is, in fact, a studio at Channel Seven in Sydney, home to the award-winning medical drama All Saints. The action occurs in Ward 17 of the fictitious All Saints Western General Hospital and unlike most similar dramas, the spotlight is on the nursing staff.

Ward 17 is known as "the garbage ward" because it takes the overflow of patients other wards don't want. And it seems viewers are rewarding the kindness with ratings - there is no sign they want to put the "garbage" out.

The program, which premiered in February 1998 and notched up its 150th episode on Tuesday, this year won the Logie for most popular program and Georgie Parker, nursing unit manager Terri Sullivan, won the Gold Logie and Silver Logie.

All Saints stands alone as the only Australian medical drama on TV - a different scenario from the 1970s and 1980s when The Young Doctors, A Country Practice, The Flying Doctors and GP brought all manner of medical conditions and emergencies into our lounge rooms.

All Saints' strength lies in its realism and its varied characters - it's jelly beans of all colors that make the flavor. It's part drama, part soap opera involving the often quirky patients and the personal lives of staff, from relationship problems to financial woes.

The show's producer, Di Drew, says  the program aims for realism and medical authenticity but she constantly reminds the team that the heart of the show is Ward 17. "The garbage ward is a place for real care because you've got people with a variety of medical needs," she says. Conditions range from heart attacks, drug overdoses, unwanted pregnancy, the health problems of derelicts, to a child dying from leukaemia and the emotional impact on the staff.

Drew believes the program  touches the heart and she is mindful of placing it in a socio-economic belt that isn't above and beyond what most people's lives are: paying a mortgage, raising children, financial problems, ill health, falling in and out of love.

"We touch a place in Australian culture, which is about familiarity. They are episodes without pretence - they are real people. Our people are like a family and they are faulty as human beings.''

All Saints prides itself on not only reflecting Australian society, but accurately depicting the medical world. Registered nurse Andrew Corbett acts as medical adviser, guiding how a patient responds to a condition, especially their level of pain - whether they yell "Oouch" or "Oooouch!"

"The show is a drama but it is based on reality and I try and remind everyone of that," Corbett says. "It's the detail that makes it in this sort of show."

Adding a big dose of realism is real-life doctor Jeremy Cumpston, who plays the "lovable rogue", nurse Connor Costello. Medicine is in his blood: Cumpston works at a medical clinic on Saturdays and writes a medicine column in a weekly magazine. His grandfather was a doctor, his father was a radiographer before becoming a hospital administrator, and his uncle is a doctor. Cumpston's partner, Rachel Lane, is All Saints' props buyer.

During a break in filming, Cumpston is asked for his medical opinion. He says the show is as real as it can be given that it is in a studio. "We have researchers on the show and I always put my two cents in. I'm sure I annoy the hell out of everyone. God knows I annoy myself. I am a perfectionist."

Cumpston, who quit All Saints on July 3 to pursue a career in producing and directing, has perfected the art of straddling two vocations; he is a graduate of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and runs his own theatre company, the Tamarama Rock Surfers. In a brutally honest assessment of what personal qualities he contributes to the program, Cumpston says.

"I'm bringing my annoying, pedantic nature where I will always try to find the truth of the scene."

Cumpston is inspired by E.R.'s ability to find "the drama within the truth" and believes All Saints can learn from the top US drama.

"E.R. always starts with the absolute truth of the medical situation and therefore find the drama within that.

"Sometimes I believe in this show we really do let the drama get ahead of the truth. Unless you have a team of people who are very skilled and understanding and have great, broad knowledge of medical procedures, emergencies and conditions, they cannot find the drama within that truth. As long as you're fighting for the right thing you'll eventually get there."

Those associated with the program say that behind the fighting spirit is solid teamwork. Camaraderie is strong among the cast and crew. In between shooting, Parker signs a pile of publicity photos while wearing her surgical gloves, exchanging banter with Judith McGrath (Von Ryan) and Libbi Tanner (Bronwyn Craig).

Cumpston says All Saints has an "amazing team". "I've been told some horror stories about what it's like to work on certain shows. I thank God and the producers that it's never happened here. When you come to work and you can laugh all day and yes, the work is long and yes, it's hard and sometimes it's tedious and sometimes you don't like the writing and sometimes the director gives you the shits and sometimes another actor isn't being generous and sometimes the guest cast are shite - it doesn't matter because at the end of the day the crew are there up to 60 hours a week and they are always smiling and they are always professional and the only thing you can ever do is try and match the crew. And thankfully the cast are brilliant … Georgie Parker, Judith McGrath and Erik Thomson … It sounds mushy but they are a joy to work with."

Producer Di Drew juggles 20 scripts at a time. The whiteboard in her office is crammed with details, understandable given the unforgiving schedule of shooting an episode in four days. Location shoots are often more demanding - scenes featuring surgery, the emergency bay and exterior shots are filmed at real hospitals.

And then there is medical authenticity. Corbett's job begins by reading the script to determine whether the content is accurate; he may even change a scene to make it more exciting. If footage is "absolutely wrong" he ensures it is edited, or if time permits, it is re-shot.

Corbett relishes the work and his own heart thumps extra hard during cardiac arrest scenes, telling the gpatients when they should feel the pain and where they should feel it. "If they've got chest pain they might think it's just a little niggly pain but I say, 'Turn up the volume and make it louder, scream a bit, double over in pain.' "

When Corbett started on the show in July last year his nursing friends questioned the realism of some scenes, but he now gets good feedback from people in the industry.

All Saints is the second highest-rating Australian drama behind Blue Heelers and has consistently won its timeslot this year, attracting more than 1.6 million viewers nationally. Keeping the Logies company on the mantlepiece are two AFI awards for best episode in 1999 and 2000.

All Saints has appeal across all demographics, but particularly among women. Audience feedback has shown that children identify with the no-nonsense Von, while young girls identify with feisty Bronwyn.

In creating All Saints, executive producer, John Holmes, wanted an "emotional drama" with a medical backdrop, which complements its police drama, Blue Heelers.

Holmes stresses that each show has its own identity and the network's new family drama, Always Greener, will have its own profile - it will not be a replacement for either program.

Given that All Saints is the sole Australian medical drama, Cumpston says a competitor  "might actually sharpen us  a bit" but pitting Australian dramas against each other is not the way to go.

Blue Heelers handed over the coveted timeslot of 8.30pm Tuesdays to All Saints in 1988, and in recent times Nine's Water Rats has been the casualty in the ratings, forcing it to move to the 9.30pm timeslot in April.

"Channel Nine went for us from day one," Cumpston says. "There was a great, healthy competition. But as every actor would say, 'How sad is it that we're going to put our own shows against our own shows.' In the end it must limit Australian production."

Drew concurs, adding that timeslot competition is bad for the industry. "I wouldn't be concerned if another medical drama came along because we are unique. What I would like to see if another medical drama comes on screen is that we aren't in competition. The thought that we have to knock somebody else out of a slot means that all of our professional peer group is suddenly out of a job."

Drew says the best way to make the best drama is keep people working and gaining experience. "The more work there is … the better chance  of getting the best people for your show."

On All Saints the cast is set and the  the prognosis is positive.

Suzanne Carbone travelled to Sydney courtesy of Channel Seven.

All Saints screens on Tuesdays on Channel Seven at 8.30pm

By Suzanne Carbone
July 19, 2001
The Age